With the likes of James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty and Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury hitting the newsstands, all certainly worth the read, I was delightfully surprised to learn that the non-fiction book of 2018 is none other than Prairie Fires, the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser.
This biography of the writer of the books that guided my childhood has so far garnered the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, and I can only hope that the National Book Award sees the light as well.
I grew up on the Little House books. My dad was a fairly good dad for his generation – kind of an asshole for ours – so I adopted Pa Ingalls, a man who had no sons (my dad ended up with four), and an abiding love for his girls. A man who played the fiddle. A man who would sometimes give his daughter a wink and a smile when her mother chastised her for some small thing. A man who worked and sacrificed for his family, but never lost his sense of humor, his sense of humanity.
I learned how to make maple syrup from Little House in the Big Woods. Much later, when I had my own farm in Wisconsin, I followed her instructions to the letter and made delicious maple syrup of my own. Little House in the Big Woods gave me a healthy appreciation of the necessities of farm life, of growing things, of raising animals for food. You might say that my love of Little House life was instrumental in resisting the arguments of my vegetarian friends. Raising animals for food was righteous work, in my eyes. Laura did it, and so, for a time, did I.
Little House on the Prairie had me questioning the decisions of the family to move to Indian Territory in Kansas, and made me sad to realize Ma’s deep prejudice against Native Americans. I can remember thinking hard about it – can’t remember how old I was at the time – and finally coming to the conclusion that Ma was afraid that if she were more understanding of Native Americans and her children’s fascination with them, that she would lose the last vestiges of the culture in which she had grown up and which was still precious to her. Laura’s Pa was more egalitarian, but it was thinking about Ma that was the beginning of a deeper understanding of the fears that new and strange customs engendered in many of the early settlers.
On the Banks of Plum Creek told true disaster stories of scarlet fever (leaving Laura’s sister Mary blind) and locust plagues which decimated the fields. By the Shores of Silver Lake in South Dakota they lived a life of comparative luxury, house sitting for the county surveyor while Pa looked for a claim on which he could file. The family earned extra money giving room and board to passing settlers with the goal of sending Mary to a School for the Blind in Iowa.
The Long Winter is, however, the one that stands out alongside Big Woods as the most memorable of the series. Romance comes into it, which would have been very welcome to my young girl’s reading preferences. Laura meets her husband to be. But it also recalls a winter longer even than the one I am now experiencing in southern Wisconsin. It began with a blizzard in mid-October and lasted well into May. Almanzo Wilder, her prospective husband, and a friend ventured south in the unrelenting weather to bring wheat to the starving settlers of DeSmet, South Dakota, and came back as conquering heroes. Every bit as heroic, however, were those who had stayed behind, eking out survival from dwindling supplies.
Laura is five years old when the stories commence, and I think she is eighteen when she marries Almanzo.
I’m convinced that Laura Ingalls Wilder has as much to do with my character as my church-going mother and my business-man father did, and although sometimes that meant that I tried to take on more than I could handle, wanting to be as brave and self-sufficient as Laura, I can’t think it was any other thing but good.
Now that I’ve gone ahead and bought the biography, I’m looking forward to diving once more into the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder through the eyes of a woman who clearly loves her too, but has the wit and intelligence to burrow into the story behind the stories.
There’s more than a chance that I yet have things to learn from the heroine of the Little House books.